Who can receive Holy Communion?
Dear Father John, It is my understanding that only Catholics who are in the state of grace may receive Holy Communion. I know that only God really knows the state of a person’s soul. I am also aware that there have been hurts inflicted by very fallible and imperfect members of the Church that may prevent a person from fully and outwardly embracing the Church. If a person is not a member of the Catholic Church, but believes that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, why should they not receive Holy Communion?
I am honored to be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. I have been approached while in this position by just such a person. I have given him the Holy Eucharist, but am feeling more and more uncomfortable because I have been told that that someone who is not a Catholic should not receive. I do not want to drive a further wedge between him and the Church, but feel that I need to talk to him about it. What can I say? How can I explain to this person why he should not receive the Holy Eucharist?
This question is extremely difficult for me to answer. I can only provide general observations, but you are referencing some specific situations (or at least one) without detailing them. I apologize ahead of time if my answer doesn’t satisfy. I am also wondering a bit about what they explained to you in this regard when they prepared you to become an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. Perhaps during that preparation you met someone closer to home that you may be able to approach about the specific situation you reference. Here also is a good summary of the biblical and Catechetical passages that are involved in this issue. Now here are a few more thoughts.
An Intimate Encounter
Receiving Holy Communion is a deeply personal encounter with Jesus Christ, who is truly present under the appearances of bread and wine, within Christ’s family of the Church. When Jesus gives himself to us in Holy Communion, he is saying many things, things like the following: “I know you and I love you. I long to share your life and to allow you to share my life. I want you with me, and I want my grace to heal, strengthen, enlighten, and guide your difficult journey through this fallen world. I give you this spiritual nourishment as a sign of my love for you and my commitment to you. All that I lived, taught, and suffered, I did for you…”
When we receive Holy Communion, we are accepting Christ’s love and Christ’s grace. That includes accepting all that he has taught, and all that his Church teaches, about the meaning of life and the path to fuller and fuller “union with” (this is what “communion” means) our Lord and Savior here on earth, and to a complete union with him forever in heaven. When we receive him, we are telling him: “Lord, I believe in you, and in all you have taught, and in all you have done for me. I believe in your Church, through which you give me this Blessed Sacrament. I long to follow you more closely. I long for my life to give you glory and to be a mirror of your goodness in this dark world. I promise to do everything I can to obey your commandments, since that is how you have asked me to show you my love (cf. John 14:15). I want to live in true friendship with you, today, tomorrow, and forever.”
Avoiding a Lie
Now, someone who does not accept what the Catholic Church teaches about faith and morals, cannot actually say those things. They cannot be in full communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, because the Catholic Church believes that Christ continues to act in the world through his Church. A Lutheran, an Episcopalian, or a Buddhist, for instance, does not accept all the basic teachings of the Gospels as explained in the Catholic Catechism, and so they are not in “communion” with Christ in his Church – if they did accept those teachings, they would become Catholic. So, for someone in that position to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is, in a sense, for them to say something that they really don’t believe (i.e., “I am in communion with Christ and his Catholic Church”) – it’s a kind of lie. (Here is a short essay I wrote explaining the differences between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, and here is another short essay I wrote explaining the Church’s view of non-Christian religions.)
If someone who does believe what the Catechism teaches about faith and morals (and the Catechism is simply a systematic explanation of what Jesus taught in the Gospels and the Holy Spirit teaches in the rest of the Scriptures), but refuses to live by that teaching, they would also be contradicting themselves by receiving Holy Communion. Someone who is having an affair, for example, would need to repent of the sin, confess the sin, and make a firm resolution to break off the affair before receiving Holy Communion. An affair is a grave sin against marriage, against God’s plan for marriage, against God’s plan for the people having the affair. To receive Communion without repenting from and confessing that sin is like saying to Jesus, “I want to follow you, but I think you are wrong about the meaning of marriage and the evil of adultery, so I am just going to keep doing my own thing in that area.” It’s a contradiction; it’s saying that I am in communion with Christ, but then, in my next breath, turning around and rejecting him, slapping him in the face. It’s, again, in a certain sense, a lie.
Dealing with Difficult Situations
If you know people who really want to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but who are not currently in a position to be able to do so, I would encourage you to begin a relationship of spiritual friendship and instruction with them. Explain to them that Jesus too wants to give himself to them in this Blessed Sacrament. But explain to them that the Sacrament doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a central part of a relationship in which we must accept Christ for who he truly is: the Lord of the universe and the one Savior. And so, we must acknowledge our dependence on him, and we must “repent and believe in the good news!” as he said in his first homily (Mark 1:15). We must help people in this situation to undertake and persevere on a journey to the fullness of faith. Otherwise, we invite them to live a kind of lie every time they receive Holy Communion, and we only make the situation worse.
While they are on this journey, we should encourage them to come to Mass, to participate in the Liturgy, to receive blessings and to join in the prayer of the Church. But until they have repented from their sin or professed the Catholic faith, they really can’t receive Holy Communion in the way that God desires, and in a way that will nourish their souls with his grace.
“Speaking the Truth in Love” (Ephesians 4:15)
This may be a difficult process. People may be offended. We have to try and understand where they are coming from, and be gentle and respectful and patient, and explain, and not condemn – but at the same time, we must believe deeply in the power of God’s grace to change hearts, and in the power of the truth of our holy faith to “set us free” (cf. John 8:32). We do no favors to anyone by obscuring or disobeying the teaching of our Lord and of his Church. In this area, we need to ask for God’s grace to give us prudence and compassion, so that we don’t “break the bruised weed or put out the smoldering wick” (cf. Matthew 12:2). This is what St. Paul meant, at least in part, by the phrase “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It’s what St. Peter exhorts us to do: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Sometimes we will make mistakes. But God can use even our clumsy efforts to build his Kingdom.
St. Paul was very clear about the reverence and right-heartedness required for worthy reception of Holy Communion: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:27–28). Let us all pray that we will receive Jesus with the love he longs for, and help others do the same. He wants that – passionately.
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